Monday, June 29, 2009

Seven Films for Seven Batmen, No. 1: BATMAN (1966)

How can I possibly assert that this feature-length Adam West-Burt Ward Batman episode is a better movie than The Dark Knight?

Well, I can’t, really. The Dark Knight is wonderful filmmaking. Ambiguous, thought-provoking, epic in scope, brimming with spectacle. Personally, I feel The Dark Knight is a better film than Batman ’66.

But remember, I’m not going on what’s the best movie. I’m going on what’s the best Batman movie.

Because here’s the thing: Ultimately, The Dark Knight is somewhat limited because you can dismiss it. When I first saw it, even I felt it somewhat inappropriate to pair these sober, mature themes with a character originating in a children’s entertainment medium. The movie had to grow on me, actually; I left the theater thinking “Jeez, can even Batman as a concept support all that serious stuff they just threw at it?” (Ultimately: Yes, I think.) And there were critics out there who thought the same thing. You can say that superheroes are silly, that ultimately it’s a movie about a guy in a mask and a cape punching a guy dressed like a clown. “You guys seriously think this should’ve been nominated for Best Picture? It’s only a comic book movie!”


Oh, but Batman ’66 is prepared for you. It’s a parody of comic books. You go right ahead and laugh at the Shark Repellent Bat-Spray, at the outrageous conclusions Batman and Robin deduce from nonsensical “clues” (“It happened at sea! C? C for Catwoman!”). Have a good time chuckling at Burt Ward’s flesh-colored tights and the unfortunate effect that big utility belt buckle has on Adam West’s midsection. Bloody silly superheroes!

And it is funny. I find it funny.

But I didn’t get the joke as a kid, of course. To make an often-repeated observation (but often-repeated because it is true), as a child I took the movie and TV show at face value and never assumed it was anything but serious. Yes, there were things that even a child would recognize as jokes (“Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”), but Burton’s Batman had jokes in it as well (“You weigh a little more than a hundred-and-eight.”). In fact, I had a VHS copy of Batman ’89 and a copy of Batman ’66 taped off of TV, and I watched both of them fairly interchangeably (for which I am eternally thankful; because my viewing of Burton’s tortured, brutal Batman was tempered by William Dozier’s square, exuberant Batman, I grew up believing that both approaches were valid not just for Batman, but for the superhero genre as a whole). Did I want to watch the dark Batman or the brightly colored Batman? It was usually a 50-50 split.

Children view Batman ’66 as a “serious” superhero movie, while adults view it as a satirical comedy, thus ensuring that both groups can derive equal enjoyment. Like I said, it’s not a new point, so I won’t belabor it too much, but I do want to add an additional wrinkle.

After you’ve grown up and accepted Batman ’66 as a comedy … it is furthermore an option to play along and regard it once again as a “serious” movie.

No, really, c'mon.

Get in touch with the child within, accept the movie on its own terms, and watch it straightfaced. You can laugh at the ridiculous “clues” and Batman’s solution to them, but that doesn’t change the fact that his conclusions are invariably correct. You can laugh at the Shark Repellant Bat-Spray, but it turns out he was right to have developed it. It’s goofy the way Batman and Robin eulogize “the nobility of the almost-human porpoise,” but if you were magnetically gripped to a buoy in the middle of the ocean with a torpedo heading straight for you … man, maybe that porpoise hurling itself in the way of the missile would make you pretty emotional, you know?

It’s a fascinating experience I recommend to anyone. Quite a fun, exciting movie, if you need reminding. Don’t intellectualize it too much, don’t overanalyze, feel free to laugh if you need to, but don’t dismiss the movie. Accept it. It’s not that much different than working with the artificiality of Wes Anderson movies (of course, if you don’t like Wes Anderson movies, you might not have time for this, either). Or you know, old comic books themselves.

You can do this because of the deadpan performances. As noted before, you can’t really ever take Batman & Robin too seriously, because everyone in Schumacher’s movie acts like they’re kinda goofing around; “We sure are slummin’ it to give you this comic book movie!” they say, winking. But it’s rare for Adam West to break that self-serious tone; there’s an urgency in his performance, just as there’s an earnestness in Burt Ward’s Robin, just as the fellows playing Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara seem to genuinely admire Batman and Robin and hold them in some awe. It allows you to play along: What if it were all real? The Bat-credit card in Batman & Robin is stupid, because it’s only there to make a joke; it doesn’t fit into the logic of the film anywhere. But the shark repellant is funny, and Batman legitimately needs it.

And the villains! Oh, let me extol their performances as viewed through that “adult sincerity” lens I’m trying to sell you on.

Cesar Romero as the Joker: Probably my least favorite, but it’s a testament to how good this movie is that it has three villains even more awesome than Romero. What he lacks in menace he makes up for in a sense of pure, manic delight. Unlike most Jokers, he’s not trying to be scary; his laugh is almost like an ageing auntie’s. But there’s something unsettling about that too, isn’t there? Here’s a Joker who’s not trying to impress you, who’s not trying to intimidate you. This isn’t a Joker who doesn’t need your attention. Everything he does is for his own amusement.

Burgess Meredith as the Penguin: Well, that’s just some magical casting, there. Of all the villains in the Batman TV show, Meredith’s the one who’s really just the comic book version come to life. I don’t know what more there is to say. If I'm reading a Batman comic, even a new one, I hear the Penguin speaking in Burgess Meredith's voice.

Lee Meriwether as the Catwoman: As a Batman character, I find this version of Catwoman a lot more interesting than her present-day comic book equivalent. Today’s Catwoman has an ambiguous moral code, but she’s basically considered an antihero because she can't be too bad and still support a solo series (or an ensemble series, or what-have-you). But Meriwether’s Catwoman is an out-and-out villain, and so Batman’s attraction to her is in sharper contrast to his moral code, which is more interesting than him being attracted to someone who, yeah, okay, crosses all sorts of lines he never would, but is still basically a good person.

Anyway, Meriwether herself is great in the role, playing a supervillain extravagantly but with that all-important straight face (that bit where the henchman calls her Catwoman and she yells at him for calling her by her “real name” is meant to be a joke, but she pulls it off in such a way that it’s totally badass). Possibly the most intense of the actors playing the villains, so it makes sense that she’s the leader; there is, I think, a cruelness and directness in her performance that makes her seem a little more legitimately dangerous than the more whimsical male villains.

Frank Gorshin as the Riddler: An absolute pleasure to watch every second he is in this movie. The nuance he brings to the role creates a legitimately scary performance Scarier than Heath Ledger; I HAVE SAID IT. Giggling and jumping around one second, intensely thoughtful the next. Which any actor can do, except Gorshin can do it right in the middle of a line. Absolutely no transition … it’s almost like a jump cut.

The other thing about Gorshin’s Riddler is … well, I’m not sure if this is exactly the right word I want to use, but there’s something … kinky? … about his performance. No, wait, come back, hear me out. There’s the obvious Batman obsession thing that most Batman villains have in one way or another, and the way he says his mental game with Batman is “my very par-a-dise...!” with such gravity is odd enough. But there’s more. For one thing, look at the way he dresses. Much like his mood swings, he’ll be dressed in a well-tailored three-piece suit and bowler hat in one scene, and in the next he’s in ill-fitting green spandex … and that purple girdle. The tights themselves aren’t the strange thing, it’s the going back and forth; that unlike the other villains, who never deviate from their uniform unless they’re in disguise, the Riddler makes a choice before going out whether to wear the suit or the tights. What goes into that decision-making process. Is it “work clothes” and “play clothes”? Why does he wear that mask only when he’s wearing the tights?

When the villains are on the submarine, and Riddler’s watching the torpedo speeding toward Batman and Robin on the buoy, Gorshin licks his lips ever … so … slowly … and, like, something is going on.

Frank Gorshin, man. He is acting as sure as anyone in The Dark Knight is, and don’t you forget it.

Some final thoughts: Batman is a loose enough character where you can have diverse interpretations, and they’re all equally valid. Michael Keaton might not register as “your” Batman or “my” Batman, but he does register as a Batman. Christian Bale and Adam West are night and day, but you can find Batmen in comic books that correspond to both of their interpretations. “Batman” is a collection of ideas that each filmmaker (including writers, directors, actors, producers) presents according to his or her own interpretation. But in Batman ’66, you can interpret everything from multiple points of view within the movie itself. It can be a comedy or an action movie. Batman can be a suave ultracompetent crimefighter, or he can be a good-hearted square, or he can be a bumbling fool depending on how you want to watch the movie (and, of course, you can watch it a different way each time, or at the same time).

In some sense, Batman ’66 is the ultimate Batman movie.

And … we … are … DONE. My labour is complete (I spent enough time on this that I feel justified spelling "labour" with a "u"). Did we learn anything about Batman? Did I? I watched a bunch of movies I enjoy, so at least I can say I had a good time.


plok said...

Ha! Not at all sure I can find a way to view Batman '66 in a pure serious mode, since I'm not sure I ever viewed it entirely that way. In other words, you can't put back together what's never been sundered in the first place: this Batman's not part parody, part adventure, part actor's free-for-all, part a kid's eyes, it's all these at once. As adults, we can recapture this all-at-once business quite easily by watching Japanese TV -- where there is such a thing as a game show/sitcom/talk show/news program, and that's totally normal, hey different strokes...

I'd pick this Batman as the best Batman movie, too, because it never cheats and never tricks, instead it's absolutely honest. I'm not sure any other Batman movie can boast the same honesty. You are meant to marvel at Adam West's indefatigable deadpannability. And, you're meant to laugh at how silly it all is...but then again you're meant to care about the heroes defeating the villains. And Catwoman, good heavens...

I'll have more to say about this when the satellite swings overhead again, but MAN! Some would call this movie more mannered than TDK. Of course that isn't really true: all the Batman movies are extraordinarily mannered, and can't, couldn't possibly, be otherwise. So this one's the most up-front of them all, and Adam West and Burt Ward do the exact SAME ACTING JOB as Heath Ledger did in TDK.

Just, with a different director, who had different interests and influences.

Whoops, satellite's dipping over the horizon...!

Justin said...

Ah, see, I remember actually having to be told by my mom as a young child that the TV show was a comedy, because it didn't adhere to the sitcom/parody codification I'd already managed to work out by that time.

And I remember *not quite believing her*!

The honesty's a good point, and I'd add that I really can't think of any way that this movie *fails* at what it's trying to do. Looking at my list, I think all the movies starting at #4 and all the way down fail in some way:

-Schumacher's fail at proper camp and/or the mixing of camp and seriousness
-Begins doesn't quite sell the "world", and without the big-name villains it didn't capture the public's attention as much as something with the Joker in it would have
-Returns seems to be trying to say something interesting but never gets there (and it belabors what it *does* manage to get across)

Does Dark Knight fail in anyway? Nothing springs immediately to mind. I'm not sure Batman '89 fails because it seems to accomplish all the goals it's set out to do (whether you respond to those particular goals is a matter of personal taste, I suppose).

But yeah, Batman '66 is *something*, all right. All things to all people. Only thing it can't really do is the tortured "MY PARENTS ARE DEAAAAAD!" angst (unless you really reach and go for the "frozen in childhood" interpretation for the Bat-copter and gadgets and everything, but I've never been big on that reading in comics and elsewhere). I don't necessarily mind, however; I've always preferred the Caped Crusader aspect to the Dark Knight stuff anyway.